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The Birdman of Gadhimai

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Jan 26, 2015

Lucia De Vries

Among the many disturbing images of the animal sacrifices at the Gadhimai Festival that took place in November 2014, there was one that stood out. It is that of a young man standing in a large field littered with buffalo heads and corpses, holding up a banner. On the man's shoulder sits a young, white pigeon, perched firmly, as if holding on for its life.

The image was uploaded on Facebook and went viral. Campaigners drew strength from the lone crusader and the surviving white bird. The unknown campaigner became known as 'The Birdman of Gadhimai'.

The image reminded many of other iconic images showing the power of a single person, like that of the Chinese man positioning himself in front of a row of tanks at the Tiananmen Square, Rosa Parks in the 'wrong' seat on the Montgomery bus, or an injured Malala Yousafzai in Afghanistan.

Who is the young man in the photograph, and what is the story behind the pigeon?

The 'birdman' is Raghu Aditya. He is a language editor and lives in Imadol. We meet Raghu at his favorite location: Patan Durbar Square. In a café, we sit for coffee and yomari. The daughter of the owner soon becomes friends with the white pigeon and starts feeding it. She can't get enough of the bird. Eventually her mother shoos her away.

Raghu was not born an animal lover.

Photo Courtesy Raghu Aditya

 "As a young child, I loved to squash ants, thinking they were little robots that needed to be eliminated. It was my father who made me realize what I was doing. He took me aside and explained that animals feel pain, like humans do."

A vegetarian at the age of eight, Raghu discovered butcher shops, with goats waiting for their turn.

"People tell me that once I threw myself between the butcher and the goat when it was to be hacked. Neighbors removed me, and sent me back home."

Increasingly aware of the plight of stray animals, Raghu went from school to school with PowerPoint presentations to promote animal welfare. Nowadays, he organizes 'mini'-musical events, selling animal greeting cards. The profits are spent in helping the local strays. With the help of children and using local materials, Raghu builds shelters for individual dogs to keep them safe and warm.

"I believe in small things. When things are small, it's easy for me to fill them with fire, reason, and purity. I've observed that people, especially children, who are near such a fire, are quick to catch its sparks and soon get ignited themselves."

By now the little girl is back in the cafe, feeding and stroking the bird.

When the Gadhimai Festival drew close, Raghu decided that instead of speaking out against the sacrifices from the comfort of his home, he would go to the venue. Raghu arrived on November 27, carrying three banners.

"The first day was intense. I hadn't anticipated such aggression. People lashed out on me immediately after I rolled out my banners. One of them got stolen and I was forced to withdraw. I watched helplessly as animals poured in. Many were terribly dehydrated and malnourished. Some collapsed from exhaustion and people still kept beating them. At times, I placed myself between the people and the animals. It was an act of despair."

Raghu left feeling helpless, and at night tried to think of a prayer for the animals waiting to be killed. "I came up with a short one: 'May you die without pain; may you be free'." On the second day, the campaigner positioned himself in front of the main entrance to the buffalo enclosure. People began to show an interest.

One aggressive man stepped in: "This man is a Pahari, and he's interfering with our Madeshi culture. He has no right to be here."

The crowd seemed to agree.

"After we get done with the buffaloes, the Dalits will take away their bodies. Unfortunately, my friend, there'll be no one to take care of yours," the man threatened.

Raghu got disheartened and decided to take a break. Near the buffalo enclosure, he noticed people keeping headless birds in small cages. He learnt that although people set pigeons free at the main temple, they are sacrificed in thousands elsewhere.

The young campaigner noticed a couple of boys carrying live pigeons.

"Would you mind selling them to me?" he asked.

"No way," the boys said, "We cannot. It's against our tradition."

Raghu then noticed a young, white bird on the roof of a small temple. A boy had his eyes fixed on it. As soon as the bird moved, he caught it by its tail. Raghu decided to give it one more try.

"Let me buy the bird," he said.

"Why should I sell the bird? It's for the sacrifice," the boy replied.

"I'll give you money for it!" Raghu offered.

"No way! Let me go. My brother's waiting nearby."

"How much you want?" Raghu pushed.

The boy seemed to reconsider. "Two hundred!"


Raghu: "As soon as I took hold of the bird, I tried to make her fly. She wouldn't. I then placed her on my shoulder. The bird seemed to like it there. She made me feel very special. I drew strength from my new companion."

Raghu decided to join the crowd once more. Threats were still being issued but a few started showing support. A foreign activist and a student stood by him. Five others followed.

After the killing of thousands of buffaloes inside the enclosure was completed, Raghu felt numb. "I have never seen so much bloodshed in my life. I was relieved it was over."

After the night's rest, Raghu returned to the fields with his bird.

"The scene will be etched in my mind forever," he says. "There were remains of the dead animals, blood and feces everywhere. The stench was overwhelming. Some people were vomiting. And that was supposed to be the prasad!"

When Raghu took out his banner in the field of buffalo corpses, he was surprised to find around twenty other people joining him.

'I realized I had fulfilled my mission. I wanted to reach out to those who care and are ready to speak out, and I found them. Change starts that way."

Since his protest, Raghu has become an inspiration for many. Overseas supporters offer to send money, which he redirects to established welfare organizations. The bird is now called Sano Maya, and the two are inseparable. Raghu tried to free her, but till now the bird shows little interest in spending time elsewhere.

By now the girl is back. She feeds some yomari dough to the bird.

Not everyone is charmed by Raghu and his crusade.

"I received comments about being cold for not reacting with more emotion. Many think that one has to be upset or angry to be genuinely concerned about something. However, relying solely on emotions eventually hampers our effectiveness. Developing equanimity is important to not feel overwhelmed and to keep going."

Raghu calls himself an agnostic but has been relying on meditation to improve his inner balance. "I find that I'm less restless and can see things a little more clearly. I can cope with changes and losses better."

Raghu, like other campaigners, is also being criticized for focusing on Gadhimai, and not the issue of slaughterhouses in the West.

"People always find arguments to shut you up, like the Madeshi versus Pahadi one. We're a part of the worldwide movement for justice, be it for Blacks, women, or animals. Each one of us needs to own up all the world's injustices yet be ready to start where we're right now."

On the way back home, Raghu found himself behind a truck with buffaloes destined to be killed in Kathmandu. They were stacked together and tied from their tails and noses.

"I had seen so many animals suffer, I thought I was numbed. But the whole journey I felt for those poor buffaloes. At one point, the truck veered over, and a tail broke off. That incident is etched most strongly in my mind. The poor buffalo on its way to Kathmandu, with its tail snapped off."

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